Asheville, North Carolina – A Gardnerian coven recently posted a video of its 1996 public Samhain ritual that it claims was made by local police. The video is one of an estimated 100 surveillance videos that the Asheville Police Department recorded of various political rallies and religious gatherings since the early 1980’s.The High Priestess of Oldenwilde Coven says the lack of transparency and accountability, on the part of the local police department with regards to the tapes, combined with the chilling effect knowing that this was happening, is a cause for concern.
Over the past 30 years the Asheville police department has regularly video taped tax rallies, environmental protests, and street preachers. The practice of video taping by police came to light when a local newspaper, The Citizen-Times, filed a Freedom of information Act lawsuit to make the tapes public.
Oldenwilde Coven, however, has known about the tapes since sometime before 2008. Its High Priestess, Queen Lady Passion, explained that her relationship with the Asheville PD began in the mid 1990’s when an officer assigned to the occult crimes unit asked her to help the department determine the cause of local Church desecrations. She said, “He would bring me crude Books of Shadows found in such locations, and photos of Satanic graffiti scrawled on their walls, and the like, but the vast majority of such cases came down to reprisals by angry teens who’d been abused by Church elders.”
She says the professional relationship between Lady Passion and the officer developed a mutual respect and when the officer found out the coven’s Samhain ritual had been videotaped by a fellow law enforcement years earlier, he made a copy and smuggled it out to her.Although the coven has had the video for over six years, they only recently decided to make it public. “Knowing the APD’s long-time practice of videotaping people who attend all manner of permitted public events, we kept the footage for future use when it would prove most effective, which is why we posted two such videos this week in support of the Asheville Citizen-Times‘s having filed a lawsuit regarding the issue,” said Lady Passion.
The coven leaders say they aren’t surprised that their activities were under surveillance. They had spent decades participating in pro-police reform activism. They say that they “…feel strongly that the precious nature of religious rights are constitutionally protected and should be treated with utmost respect.” They add that, “Pagans should be treated as valued community resources, not criminals-in-the-making, nor have their right to peaceably assemble or express their free speech overtly impeded by video-taping, gun-toting cops.”
The newspaper’s lawsuit also notes that the Asheville PD’s practice of routinely recording public gatherings has a chilling effect on free speech. The police department has said that the video’s aid in training and are part of ongoing criminal investigations, although there is no alleged criminal activity on the tapes. City officials have also said that no actionable criminal intelligence has come from the tapes.
I would have to say, that this is not legal advice and I have no license for that state, but given the facts you gave, I do have some hypotheses: Free Speech is constitutionally protected but the devil is in the details. State action, when curtailing the content of free speech, is supposed to be narrowly enacted and limited to specific issues. Hypothetically speaking and given the above facts, I suspect that the State’s position would be that this is a general investigation and a criminal issue rather then a free speech one. Assuming the facts as stated, it doesn’t sound like there would be any kind of valid articulable suspicion. I could not speak at all toward any discrimination claim.
Lady Passion says the Citizen-Times was able, through a review of the police department’s records, to confirm that officers had filmed the 1996 Samhain ritual. Yet the coven has a copy of a second video allegedly taken by police that was not listed in police records. Lady Passion says this raises, “worrisome concerns about the laxity of APD’s tracking methods; who sees them; how, when, or if they are ever destroyed.” She says it’s concerning why the police continue to defend the practice of video taping when a city spokesman admitted in an email that all videos taken since the 80’s had yielded no investigative value.
As of press time, the Asheville police department has not responded to questions.